Tuesday, June 3, 2008

We Are Proud Pride March in Moscow

Proud Pride March in Moscow by Ken Coolen.

Hello all! First let me say we are all safe and soundhere in Moscow and are all filled with a sense ofextreme honor to have been a part of the first actualPride March here in Moscow. The experience we had wasone that none of us will ever forget, including ourdear straight cameraman Josh Rainhard. In order tohelp you all understand what this experience was likeI will take you all back to Friday. On Friday we were anxiously trying to get in touchwith Nikolai to find out what the plan was for theweekend.

He had already shared with us the fact thatno decision had been made officially as to when theywould assemble to have the annual attempt of Pride inMoscow. This was to help ensure that what they didwould not give any of the anti-gay groups too muchopportunity to counter-assemble against us. We weretold that there would be a meeting on Saturday thatwould explain the plans for the Sunday and we couldattend that meeting. In order to maintain a level ofsecrecy, we would be given a call on Saturday to betold the location on the meeting.

So the adventurebegins. Before this however, we were invited to the CanadianEmbassy here in Moscow, as the Ambassador is apersonal friend of one of the team, MorrisChapdelaine. It was an amazing affair and the four ofus, myself, Morris, Josh, and Bob Christie ourdirector and leader were able to dine with some otherguests such as Nikolai and some of his associates fromthe Pride Moscow team and some other Russian guestsfrom human rights groups and media.

It was definitelythe calm before the storm, so to speak. On Saturday, we were contacted about 3pm and told thatthe meeting was happening and given a landmark to goto and told to call again once we reached thatlocation. After we did were given an address and itwas an apartment of someone who cannot be mentionedfor safety reasons and we headed forward. When wearrived it was a large building complex and we weretold to say to the guard at the gate that we weregoing to a "birthday party".

By the way, there arepolice of various levels and guards everywhere inMoscow. We arrived at the apartment and invited in tojoin a group of people of men and women of variousages who were all speaking in Russian. Our host, whoI will say nothing more than the fact that she was awonderful person and it was a pleasure to meet her,also spoke English. So she brought us in and startedto translate information for us as the official partof the meeting started. The short of the meeting wasthat the decision had been made this year to try andcreate a positive event instead of the traditionalviolent gathering of the previous two years. So,though the website officially listed the City hall asthe gathering place for the event, it was not where wewere going to meet. I should mention at this pointthat the city government here denied all of theapproximately 150 applications that were made to havea gathering. As Nikolai spoke to his team I watchedas they were all listening with a sense of excitementand commitment to this cause.

What was shared with uswas this, Nikolai said that though he trusted everyoneone on the team completely, to ensure a successfulexecution, he would not share the actual meeting spotto any of them. There were a couple of people on theteam who knew what that plan was and they needed totrust them. All we were told is the Metro station tomeet at and the time. We were told that when wearrived there to wait until someone contacted us andtake us to the meeting place. We were to go in nomore than twos or threes and not to acknowledge eachother when we arrived. After meeting a few people weleft, excited and anxious for the next day. Sunday morning we woke up and met our Russiantranslator that we had hired, Vladimir and Graham andLola.

Graham is a previous employee of Transmission,which is the production company that is backing thisproject. Lola is his girlfriend who is studying inEurope and they came to meet us in Moscow to help withthe documentation of this event. The decision hadbeen made to split into two groups, Bob, Josh,Vladimir and myself will go to the secret meeting spotto attend the actual event and Morris, Graham and Lolawould go to City Hall to the 'public' event that wouldmost likely attract many anti-gay and hate groups totry and stop the event. We headed from our hotel andwent downtown, wished each other good luck and went toour secret meeting spot. I was on the wireless microphone, so Josh could hearanything I said so the decision to split into coupleswas made, Bob and I and Josh and Vladimir. We got offof the subway onto a platform and immediatelyrecognized one of the other organizers.

We walked past him with out acknowledging him and walked intothe platform of the station. We then also saw acouple of others, all alone and not acknowledging eachother. We were not sure what to do and have to say ourhearts were all racing. There were 4 police walkingthe platform, though this was not necessarily unusual,as I have said police are everywhere here. Thoughwhen one of them stop and spoke to one of theorganizers our hearts started racing. We kept tryingto look like dumb tourists and looking at our Subwaymap hoping we just looked lost. As we stood there,another dozen or more police appeared on the metroplatform. Just as our panic seemed too much tohandle, one of the group approached us and said tofollow him, and we happily did.

Once outside he explained we were going to a café and that we wouldwait there till the appropriate time. We arrived atthe café, which was next to the TchiackovskyConservatory. This place was chosen as it was abeautiful serene spot and also that Tchiackovsky isone of the most famous Russian composers and wellknown as a gay man. As we sat in the café sipping ourcappuccinos we were in constant contact with our othergroup by text message and listened to them talk asmedia and protestors started to gather as time wenton. It is important to mention that a handful ofmedia were chosen by Nikolai and brought to the realevent with him. As the time got closer, we recognized other couples inthe café as people who were from the meeting the daybefore and also saw others, hanging out on the streetand the sidewalk.

All anxiously waiting for thesignal to go and gather in front of the building. Thewoman who was given the task as the key person wasactually sitting right behind us. As the time gotcloser, the anticipation grew. Then, finally, we sawher answer her phone, she got up and started to moveand then the rest of us followed. In what seemed likea split second, there was assembled a group of 15- 20people. The Moscow Pride banner came out as well as abunch of Pride Flags. Nikolai appeared as though fromnowhere with a contingent of media and press in tow. He spoke and led the team in chants of protest andcelebration. And then came the moment that Nikolaiand his team had dreamed of for so long, WE MARCHED. It might have only been for a short distance (not evena whole city block), but none the less, we marched. No one to stop us, no protestors, no police, no hate. I must share that the feeling that emanated from thegroup was tangible. A sense of freedom, a sense ofsuccess, a sense of true PRIDE!

Then as quickly as itbegan, it ended. People gathered the flags andbanners and put them into plastic bags and dispersedas quickly as we had gathered. After gathering ourselves, we decided to go to theother event to see what was happening and how ourother crew had made out. Our concern was growing, aswe had not heard from them for a while. We arrived tocity hall to see groups of people gathered. Groups ofOrthodox Priest and Nuns with symbols of religion aswell as Nationalists and skinheads and some who lookedthe guy or girl next door. We cautiously approachedthe group and I have to say I had never felt sofearful in my life. The level of tension and hate wastangible and I wanted to get out of there as quicklyas possible. We spotted our friends and Bob ran tothem in the midst of a group to try and gather them. Expecting that they would follow quickly, Josh and Imoved quickly to the prearranged post meeting spot. As time passed and we had not seen the rest of thegroup, the anxiety started again.

After a short time, Morris and Bob appeared. It wasobvious that something had happened as they werevisibly shaken. They shared with us that they hadbeen seen talking to someone from the Gay Activistgroup and as a group attacked one gay man, Bob wasjumped from behind. Morris quickly grabbed the guywho then swung and punched Morris in the nose. (Youshould all know that this was also Morris' birthday). They then realized that they had to get out and leftas quickly as possible, unable to communicate withGraham and Lola. Shortly after, Graham and Lolaarrived and we all sighed a huge relief. What theyhad witnessed was a Moscow Pride Banner being hungfrom an apartment beside city hall by some of theprotestors. Nikolai and his group had strategicallyplanned and rented a flat in the building a few monthsbefore just for the purpose of hanging this banner. The banner only hung for a short while before it wastargeted with eggs and eventually torn down. The sad part is the four men in the apartment were nowstranded there. We learned this later in the eveningas we gathered again with the Pride group to celebratetheir success of the day.

The feeling of joy that wasin the room, including the man who was covered inbruises and a few band aids from being beaten was alsomixed with the anxiety as some of the group tried tofind a lawyer to help successfully get the men out ofthe apartment where they were being held and had theelectricity cut. These men were eventually arrestedbut then released and there seems to be no overtviolations of their human rights. I will close this with a personal comment. I am stillwelled up with tears as I relive these events in myhead. I have never felt such a sense of humility as Idid this day. As I personally work on the events ofour own Pride, I think I may never have the feeling Ihad with my Muscovite friends, when for the first timeever, they marched with Pride in the streets ofMoscow! Humbly,

Yours in Pride, Ken Coolen

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